Name: Teemu Kivihalme
Physical: Height: 6’0″ / 183 cm, Weight: 181 lbs / 82 kg
TLN Top-20 Ranking From Last Year: N/A
Acquired: Signed as unrestricted free agent in 2019 (Drafted in 2013 by Nashville Predators Round 5 #140)
Kivihalme is an American-born Finnish international player who developed through the USHL and NCAA systems in the United States. While a much older player than most of the people in this ranking, he technically still would qualify for the Calder Memorial Trophy, and thus he technically qualifies as a prospect by our own definition.
Toronto picked up Kivihalme this offseason immediately after the season ended. He most recently played in the Finnish Elite League, called ‘Liiga’, for Oulun Kärpät.
His college career was a bit stunted in terms of development, and it was during this time that Nashville decided that he wasn’t worth an entry level contract. Over three years in the NCAA, he played 107 games and only scored 36 points. worth 0.34 points per game. He played for a very disappointing Colorado College team, that managed only 20 wins in 109 games in the NCAA D1, which couldn’t have helped things at all, but given that Hurricanes star defender Jaccob Slavin came from the same program, clearly there was onus on Kivihalme to do more and he simply didn’t get there.
In his Liiga career, his game grew quite substantially. He managed to score 50 points in a 104 games for Kärpät, which is good for 0.48 points per game. He ranked 9th in Liiga for the 2018-19 season in points among defenders, which is an excellent sign. While he isn’t lighting anything up, but this production is certainly encouraging.
Obviously, evaluating a player on points with no little other context is mediocre analysis at best. There’s a more nuanced statistic we can use, called “PNHLe”. It was developed by Mason Black (@NHL Rank King), based on the “NHLe” statistic developed by Gabe Desjardins. At its core, it compares the points a player scored to a historical points aging curve for players that make the NHL, and sees how the prospect is doing on that aging curve. The model, explained in detail here, seems to suggest Kivihalme doesn’t have the production to be more than a bottom pairing NHL defender.
For comparison, Eemeli Rasanen started with a much stronger projection, that fell to only slightly better than Kivihalme after last season, and Filip Král was solidly within the 2nd Line potential range.
This may be slightly disappointing, but it’s obviously not everything. There’s a lot more to the game than points and at 24 years old, he’s shown his best offensive output yet last season, so perhaps there were physical tools lacking until then that have now prepared him for time in the NHL.
We don’t know a whole lot about Kivihalme at this point. He was quite an under-the-radar pickup for Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs, and with that comes a lack of publicly availably knowledge to crowdsource for this.
We do one good source, which is this scouting report from Jokke Nevalainen of Dobber Prospects. He notes:
Kivihalme has average size (6-0, 181) and decent offensive skills but his biggest strengths are his skating and hockey sense. He’s a very smart player who makes excellent reads and decisions with and without the puck. He’s mostly known as a puck-moving defenseman but he’s a reliable defensive player as well. He isn’t a flashy player by any means and doesn’t take unnecessary risks.
There’s also an assortment of quotes from scouting reports from when he was drafted in 2013 on Section303.com, a Nashville Predators blog.
While we don’t know a whole lot about Kivihalme, we can generally project that he is a good candidate to factor into the bottom-pairing defense situation while Travis Dermott is injured, and perhaps even beyond that. The most likely scenario is that he’s the 7th or 8th defender on the depth chart for the season, and gets a little bit of playing time while Dermott is out.
Since the Leafs moved on from Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman this summer, Kivihalme nicely fits into that exact role of “probably NHL ready defense waiting in the minors” that you aren’t worried about rushing the development on. In all likelihood, he’s not as good as Liljegren or Sandin right now, but he’s a better choice for a short term call up than a 19 or 20-year-old because you don’t have as much risk of nerves or stunting their development.
The Leafs do have a glutton of these players still, though, including Jordan Schmaltz, Ben Harpur, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, and Kevin Gravel. It’s possible (maybe even probable) that any of these players could end up unseating Kivihalme’s chance at NHL playing time.
Kivihalme is a great example of finding a free wallet on the street, in terms of hockey players. He costed nothing for the Leafs to acquire him, so the absolute worst case is that he doesn’t work out and you lose nothing in that case.
As I stated above, there’s 5 other defenders that have a chance to get playing time on Leafs’ bottom pairing, and Kivihalme is going to be in a tough training camp battle to set himself ahead of the pack. Given his age, he’s probably going to get a bit more benefit of the doubt than some of the older players like Marincin and Gravel, but the competition will still be fierce.
Ultimately, I don’t expect a ton out of Kivihalme, in the short or long term, which is why he’s rated as a Fence Sitter. He could have a small impact in the NHL as early as this season though, which would be more than many of the prospects we cover can say.